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Toll Roads or “Free Roads”?

October 30, 2016

There seems to be one issue on which many Americans, irrespective of political party, stand together: roads should be “free.”

The idea that it is the responsibility of government to build roads is carried over from Colonial times when “post roads” were built and maintained for the purpose of facilitating delivery of mail. Of course, today much more than mail travels on government roads, but they all have some things in common: they are in poor condition and, in major cities, traffic during “rush hour” is a crime.

I’m not certain why that is the case given the condition of many public roads and, especially, congestion that makes commuting to work a trial. But, suggest that a new road expansion, or a new bridge or tunnel, or even an airport, should be built, operated and owned by a private company and you risk endangering friendships or elective office.

Yet, fly into or out of LaGuardia airport in New York City and you experience what air travel in third world countries is like. In southern Virginia, no action has been taken to expand a two-tunnel access into Norfolk from Richmond and the economy of the region is crippled. In Chicago, attempt to drive 30 miles north between 3 and 6 pm into the suburbs and you will think you are still in a parking lot.

This election year, the Governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory, and municipal officials in Mecklenburg County, are feeling the wrath of voters for their support for a toll road contract they sponsored.

A Spanish firm, Cintra, was awarded a fifty year $660 million contract to expand I-77 by adding new toll lanes.  That’s $660 million that could be used to lower state income taxes or provide merit bonuses for public school teachers, but that’s not what the voters seem to want.

Cintra, a subsidiary of Ferrovial, has projects in Canada, the US, Spain, the UK, Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Slovakia, Colombia and Australia. But, if anti-toll road advocates get their way, not in North Carolina or most American states.  I suspect that the connection between asphalt and politics is a permanent condition of legal graft that fuels American infrastructure politics.

 

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